Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I Know Where This is Leading...

Recent exercises in internet surfing have led me to rediscover the Strange Horizons web site. Strange Horizons, you see, is an online publication that's been running for almost ten years now; it focuses on speculative fiction that is made far more interesting by its access to an international stable of writers.

More importantly for this post, however, Strange Horizons is also the home of one of the more fascinating lists on the Net. Ten years of running a regular publication schedule means that the magazine's editors have come across their share of common, clich├ęd, and castrated stories, and at some point they decided to make an interesting response: They gathered some of the most irritating and overused plot ideas they'd seen, and put up the resulting list in their submissions area like some great warning in big red letters.

Naturally, this list makes for some very fun reading. Got a story idea that you tend to use over and over again? It's here somewhere. Noticed a common theme among the current crop of bestsellers? It's probably about halfway down the page. The list isn't exhaustive and may be somewhat opinionated (because it's only based on Strange Horizon's personal standards, after all), but it's great for a few minutes of derisive laughter.

Let's take one of my favorites as an example. Item 4 in their list of overused plots and themes notes the following:

Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real.
  • In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
  • In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
  • In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
  • In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we've seen are part of the novel.

  • This never fails to get a chuckle out of me, because it's true. Somehow, sometime, somewhere, there's always an aspiring writer who makes the fateful decision to end their masterpiece with "...and it was all a dream," completely unaware of just how insulting it is to readers and editors alike. (That said, I like to think that we all grow out of this phase, eventually.)

    And lest you think that I only laugh at this because I'm almost completely immune from their identified stereotypes, I must point out Item 9 on their list:

    A "surprise" twist ending occurs. (Note that we do like endings that we didn't expect, as long as they derive naturally from character action. But note, too, that we've seen a lot of twist endings, and we find most of them to be pretty predictable, even the ones not on this list.)

    That, ladies and gentlemen, is my writing to a T, and I was still greatly amused.

    That said, I didn't necessarily bring up this article to praise Caesar, and the reason can be found early in the list, in the lower reaches of Item 2:

    Creative person is having trouble creating.
  • Writer has writer's block.
  • Painter can't seem to paint anything good.
  • Sculptor can't seem to sculpt anything good.
  • Creative person's work is reviled by critics who don't understand how brilliant it is.
  • Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.

  • To be honest, I have seen a few of these floating around, and I have yet to read one that's good.

    Except perhaps for Neil Gaiman's Calliope.

    Calliope, mind you, isn't technically a short story. It's a comic that was featured in The Sandman series, published by DC Comics's Vertigo line, written by Neil Gaiman, pencilled by Kelley Jones and inked by Malcolm Jones III. It's about a struggling author who acquires one of the nine Muses of Greek Mythology and keeps her captive in order to establish a constant stream of ideas. In short, it's a plot that falls squarely on Strange Horizon's list.

    Except that Calliope predates Strange Horizon's list. Come to think of it, Calliope seems to predate every single story concerning lost creators and captive muses. Neil Gaiman, in fact, pointed this out about five years ago, and I assume that he's being perfectly straight with us on this matter.

    I can only assume that Calliope was an innovative story for its time, and that it probably ended up spawning an entire host of imitators (perhaps due to the hive-minded subconscious that all writers seem to share). Fast-forward a few years and you have a group of editors at an online magazine who have seen more "captive muse" stories than they can take. Ergo, the "captive muse" plotline is suddenly an overused one, fit only for a bit of laughter at how unoriginal people can be.

    So what happens when an editor who has read one too many "captive muse" stories finally gets his or her hands on Calliope? Such a hypothetical scenario boggles the mind.

    I wonder if this is more a matter of "shelf life" than anything else. Certain plotlines do run their course, after all, and it's entirely possible that something of great relevance and distinction in the past may no longer have the same impact in the present (which is why James Bond eventually moved away from the Cold War scenarios of his youth).

    On the other hand, it could also be an issue where repetition diminishes creative impact. JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, for example, spawned an entire host of imitations, most or all of which concerned pre-teens with magical powers, or fantastic worlds that exist alongside our own. But what would happen if, in the middle of this scenario, some excellent story of similar subject matter but better quality than Rowling's writings, came out? Would a significant audience turn their interest towards that work as well?

    I suspect that the answer is "no" here, and I suspect that public reaction would consider the second work to be another imitator that couldn't stand on its own. Timing can be such a jerk sometimes.

    So it turns out that I do have a problem with the Strange Horizons list after all. The list does make me laugh, yes, because I know that both I and an entire host of writers out there have made the mistake of using those overused, overwrought, and overexposed plotlines. But the list also makes me think, because it now begs the question: Does this mean that I shouldn't use those ideas for stories at all?

    And the answer is that I should still be able to write these things. I shouldn't care what Strange Horizons or anyone else says in this regard; if I feel that a story is best served with a captive muse, a subtle plot twist, or even — God forbid — a release from the fictive dream at the end, then I should use it. I mean, if I feel that it should work like that... then, well... it should work like that.

    And if I write such a plotline, there's a good chance that some editor out there will gloss over my story, file it among the stereotypical "nonsense" themes that she has tucked away in her head somewhere, and start filling out the rejection slip. I like to think that there are good editors out there, of course, but let's face it — everyone does have their own prejudices, their own first impressions, their own pet peeves.

    Innovation, I suppose, shouldn't automatically mean coming up with brand-new ideas. Innovation should also involve taking old ideas and pushing them forward in a new way. It's another lesson that we shouldn't immediately jump to conclusions about anything; sometimes it's better to see if that road actually takes you to where you expect it would.

    We may have heard it all before, and perhaps we've already taken the words to heart. Perhaps we've even incorporated them as part of our belief system.

    But I must conclude that lists like these are more curiosities in the long run. They're like the red octagonal STOP signs — there to provide a warning against a danger that may or may not exist. Eventually we have to hold the notion of stopping in our own minds, molding it to the point where we know why the rule exists and under what circumstances it can be bent or broken.

    I feel that there are few certainties in the writing effort, and as interesting as this list can be, it shouldn't stop me from trying things out and seeing what I can do with them.

    Neither, for that matter, should it stop anyone. Play with your ideas as you like.

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